BY RICH LUSK
Charles Spurgeon once quipped, “If you give a man the gospel, wrap it in a sandwich. And if you give a man a sandwich, wrap it in the gospel.” With those words, the great Baptist preacher captured the essence of the church’s mission in the world.
The church’s mission is to be modeled after the mission of Christ himself. In the gospel of John, Jesus says to the apostles, and thus to the church, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (20:21). Of course, in an ultimate sense, Christ’s mission is unique and cannot be duplicated. Jesus lived a sinless life for his people; he died and rose again for their salvation. No one can copy this salvific aspect of the Son’s work.
But there is a way in which the church follows in Christ’s footsteps in her mission to the world. In fact, the church does not merely pattern her mission after the Son’s; by faith and the work of the Spirit, she shares and participates in his mission of mercy and justice. In other words, Christ continues his mission to the world from the Father’s right hand in heaven, as he works in and through his church on earth. This is why the church is called the body of Christ: we are the hands and feet and arms and legs and heart of Christ in and for the world. We are co-participants in his work of bringing healing and renewal to the fallen creation, on the basis of his cross and resurrection. We are the form his loving presence to the world takes in this age; we are his means of extending the kingdom to the ends of the earth until he comes again in glory.
The ministry of Jesus was one of service. He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,” and “I am among you as one who serves” (Mk. 10:45; Lk. 22:27). It is this life of sacrificial service the church is now called to incarnate in the world. As those who have been united to Christ, we are to live among the world as a community of servants. As our head and representative, Jesus joins our sacrificial service to his, and through us, brings life and light to a dead and dark world. Christ takes our works up into himself, making them acceptable to the Father and effective in transforming human culture.
So we must ask: How did Jesus serve? And how is the church to serve in a Jesus-like fashion? The life of Christ clearly combined the preaching of the gospel with works of love and mercy; Jesus evangelized in both word and deed. Think of the Upper Room episode in John’s gospel: Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, taught them, fed them a meal, and prayed for them. His service was holisitic.
Elsewhere, Jesus described his ministry as the fulfillment of several Old Testament prophecies. In Matthew 11, he confirms his identity to John the Baptist by referring to a catena of Isaianic promises about the end of exile and the new exodus: “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” In Luke 4, he also describes his ministry in the language of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” To be sure, the needs Jesus describes have a “spiritual” referent: the spiritually blind, the spiritually imprisoned, the poor in the spirit, and so forth, are those he rescues. But we need to keep in mind two items. First, the prophecy of Isaiah was addressed to those who were about to experience a very physical disaster, namely, the exile, resulting in more than just metaphorical poverty and enslavement. Jesus came to remedy that situation. Second, the fact that Jesus actually performed miracles that restored people’s physical deformities show that his kingdom is world-embracing and world-transforming. The miracles of Jesus are more than just demonstrations of power and mercy; they are signs of the in-breaking kingdom, inaugurating the promised new age. This kingdom, of course, is not consummated until the resurrection, when all the spiritual and physical brokenness of God’s people is healed perfectly and permanently. But in the meantime, Jesus has shown us that the kingdom is already present. As his people, we are to be the bearers of the blessings of the world to come in the present age. We are to embody the life and power of the future in the here and now. In this way, his fulfillment of the prophetic hope for a new world continues to come to pass through our ministries of justice and mercy.
This means the church must penetrate the world, proclaiming the message of salvation in Christ and showing forth his mercy in acts of kindness and love. No doubt, in many cases it would easier to “preach and run” – to simply tell people the gospel without taking the time to get deeply involved in their lives. Much of post-Reformation Christianity has spiritualized the church’s mission away so that “saving souls” is all that matters. But Scripture doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. It’s often hard to convince people living in rat infested slums that “their souls need saving.”
There was more to Jesus’ ministry than just words, and there must be more to our ministry as well. Jesus is the Word made flesh; as his people, we must embody the word of the gospel by living lives of sacrificial service. Our deeds will interpret and explain our actions; our actions will embody and incarnate our words. This is the church’s mission.
We can no more separate mercy ministry from evangelism that we can separate a person’s body from his soul. Such a separation is in fact death, and a church that has separated words from works is indeed dead, as far as God is concerned (cf. Jas. 2:14ff). True love requires us to share the gospel with those around us; but it doesn’t stop (or even start!) there. We must minister to persons holistically, including physical and psychological needs. If we place an exclusive emphasis on evangelism, we will undermine the credibility of our witness and our words will sound hollow and hypocritical. If we treat mercy ministry as a substitute for evangelism, we will fail to point others to the only one who can truly rescue them out of their misery, Jesus Christ. As one pastor has said, “evangelism is social justice is evangelism.” Exactly.
Combining ministry in works of service with words of grace is a biblical tradition. The Old Testament Torah put a great deal of emphasis on care for the poor, including the “stranger” who lived outside the boundaries of the covenant community. Other laws protected the poor (e.g., no usury on poor loans), but also required the able bodied to work towards their reintegration into society (e.g., gleaning laws).
The apostles also emphasized ministries of mercy. John insisted that genuine love includes both words and deeds (1 Jn. 3:17, 18). Paul viewed the church as God’s love letter to the world (2 Cor. 3:2-4). By our speech and action, we bear witness to the gospel and the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Surely it is no coincidence that at least two of the original seven deacons, Stephen and Philip, were not only engaged in mercy ministry but were also effective evangelists (Acts 6-8).
The early church took possession of the Roman Empire within a few centuries, largely because she ministered sacrificially in word and deed. The church provided services and care that the empire and pagan religions could not in times of crisis. The faithful witness of those serving Christians bore great fruit in the transformation of a culture. The early church’s sacrificial ministry laid the groundwork for the erection of Christendom.
At the time of the Reformation, Luther emphasized the connection between faith and love:
Our own self-imposed good works lead us to and into ourselves so that we just seek our own benefit and salvation. But God’s commandments drive us to our neighbor’s need, that by means of these commandments we may be of benefit only to others and to their salvation . . . For if faith does not doubt the favor of God, it will be quite easy for him to be gracious and favorable to his neighbor, however much the neighbor may have sinned against him.
For Luther, faith itself consists in and lives in works of love and service. Luther also recovered the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. By this Luther meant not that we have no need for a priest, but that we are all to be priests towards one another. Luther unpacked this truth in striking language: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” The gospel provided the basis and power for living in a radically Christ-like way. Our priesthood consists in lives of sacrificial service, in union with our High Priest:
Just as our neighbor is in need and lacks that in which we abound, so we were in need before God and lacked his mercy. Hence, as our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought to freely help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.
[The Christian] does not distinguish between friends and enemies or anticipate their thankfulness or unthankfulness, but he most freely and most willingly spends himself and all that he has, whether he wastes all on the thankless or whether he gains a reward.
We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor . . . He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love.
But if you do not [serve you neighbor], what help would it be for you if you were to perform all the miracles of the saints and defeat all the Turks, and yet were found guilty of having disregarded your neighbor’s need and of having thereby sinned against love? For Christ at the last day will not ask how much you have prayed, fasted, pilgrimaged, done this or that for yourself, but how much good you have done to others, even to the very least [Mt. 25:40-45].
Luther also connected care for the poor with the structure and flow of the liturgy, particularly the Lord’s Supper:
When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore . . . you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship . . . As love and support are given you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones . . . [In the sacrament, it is as if Christ were saying to you], I will make your suffering and misfortune my own and will bear it for you, so that you in your turn may do the same for me and for one another, allowing all things to be common property, in me and with me.
For Luther, Eucharistic fellowship was a model for Christian community and compassion.
Calvin carried on the same Reformed heritage. In Geneva he reformed diaconal ministries, emphasizing the need for the church, rather than the state, to care for the poor. Under his direction, Geneva built hospitals, schools, and took in over 50,000 Reformed refugees. In fact, to this day, sixteenth century Geneva stands as one of the greatest community development projects in all of history.
There are several other examples. In the 17th and 19th centuries, respectively, Richard Baxter and Thomas Chalmers, among others, sought to re-institute a parish form of pastoral care, ministering holistically to people living in a particular geographic locale. Rather than ministering only to a select “holy remnant” in an area, they saw they were called to shepherd whole parishes. Even those who had no outward interest in the church or gospel were to be recipients of pastoral oversight, with the aim of Christianizing the entire region. These men took responsibility for the spiritual, economic, educational, and physical well being of their territories. They joined the work of the pastor (preaching and teaching) to the work of the deacons (mercy ministry and poverty relief). As a result, their churches moved to the center of their respective communities and exercised a great deal of beneficial influence. Baxter trained other pastors to carry out his program of parochial care, claiming territory for Christ’s kingdom through evangelism and discipleship. Chalmers also built up the kingdom of Christ. He refused government aid, instead asking his people to give sacrificially. He enacted diaconal programs that efficiently and compassionately helped the poor and suffering in urban areas.
A good deal of the church’s authority and influence is bound up her proper execution of ministries of service. Sometimes the church’s enemies have understood that better than her own members. For example, in the fourth century, Julian the Apostate sought to quench the church’s rise to power by creating an imperial system of social welfare that would outdo the Christians. He failed miserably; no one could out-give and out-serve the covenant community in those days. In twentieth century Russia, Stalin’s Communist Party put a ban on “charitable or cultural activities by churches,” since, as a Kremlin spokesperson explained, “The State cannot tolerate any challenge to its claim on the heartstrings of the Russian people.” The Communists knew any institution that helped the poor would have the loyalty of the people.
It is important to note that the biblical call to mercy is quite distinct from more liberal forms of welfare. We seek to give people a “hand up,” not a “hand out.” As Amy Sherman has pointed out, whereas secular approaches will ask, “What are your needs?” a biblical approach asks, “What are God’s intentions for you?” Biblical social justice is not a matter of “rights” but of “restoration.” It means living according to God’s design for humanity. The goal is not equality, per se, as in the wealth redistribution programs of the welfare state. Rather, our approach is aimed at helping a person begin to live the life of shalom, under the comprehensive blessing of God. Shalom, the Hebrew word for “peace,” sums up God’s plan of justice and mercy for his people. Nicholas Wolterstorff defines the biblical notion of shalom:
The state of shalom is the state of flourishing in all dimensions of one’s existence: in one’s relation to God, in one’s relation to one’s fellow human beings, in one’s relation to nature, and in one’s relation to oneself . . . An ever-beckoning temptation for the [American] evangelical is to assume that all God really cares about for human beings here on earth is that they be born again and thus destined for salvation . . . [However], what God desires for human beings is that comprehensive mode of flourishing which the Bible calls shalom . . . God’s love of justice is grounded in God’s longing for the shalom of God’s creatures and in God’s sorrow over its absence.
Our horizon includes helping a person with his “worldly” needs; but it also stretches to matters of eternal significance. We do not simply ask questions such as: What financial and social needs does this person have? But also: How can I help this person live life to glory of God? How can I help restore this person to God’s image? How can this person become (more fully) a part of God’s new humanity?
Of course, we must also be discerning in our giving of both time and resources. We must carefully consider the needy person’s situation as well as God’s calling for us. Certainly fellow believers have the priority (cf. Gal. 6:10), and we must mix our actions of mercy with wisdom and insight. Not everyone will be in a position to help in a crisis pregnancy center, or serve in a soup kitchen, or run a food pantry, or give away clothes to the homeless, or counsel the confused, or befriend the lonely, or educate the ignorant. There are different gifts in the body and different seasons of life we all pass through. While much of our mercy will be unconditional and promiscuous – and therefore “risky” – there are also times when we will refuse to help people, because to do so would only subsidize destructive, dehumanizing life patterns. But as a community, we have a responsibility for the well being of the people in the place God has put us. We must be ever mindful of the fact that the church’s mission in the world is holistic because the gospel renews human life in its entirety. We proclaim the whole Christ as Savior and King, by both our words and deeds, to the whole person, body and soul. Nothing short of this will do. This is the church’s mission of shalom, bringing the justice and mercy of Christ to bear on our fallen world.